Tip o’ the Week 350 – Killing me Softly, part I

Many companies have products or services whose time comes, and they are – gently or otherwise – put into maintenance mode, put out to pasture, taken out the back etc. Some never go away entirely but they get superseded by other technologies, or their original reason for being gets diluted to the point where nobody cares any more. Time for a misty-eyed retrospective on some defunct technology…

Remember disk compression tools, like Stacker? 25 years ago, when your hard disk was sized 125Mb and cost $350, every megabyte counted, and software like Stacker let you cram more stuff on your drive. Nowadays, you can buy a disk 32,000x as large for one third the price (nearly one sixth of the price if you adjust for inflation) ergo, nobody cares about disk compression any more.

Well, not entirely true, actually – Windows 10 has some really effective file compression algorithms that are used to reduce the size of the OS itself, meaning it can fit on relatively small tablet devices with puny storage capacities. But the market for disk compression programs has pretty well gone.

Turning to music

Another side effect of the vastly lower cost in storage, is that compressed music formats are less of a thing these days. When MP3 players were starting to take off, it was common to buy a device like a Diamond Rio, which shipped with a massive 32Mb of memory for only $200. When Smart Media cards were sized at up to 128Mb and cost ~$2/Mb, you had to be pretty selective about what music you’d take with you, and how large it was. If you ripped MP3 files from your own CDs (as opposed to pirating them from Napster), then you’d need to decide how to trade off quality vs filesize.

When encoding audio, imagine that you’re going to be slicing the original sound into many samples every second. The more samples you make, and the larger each individual sample is, in general, the better it will sound.

You’d typically choose whether you want stereo or mono, choose a sample depth (how large each sample is going to be, eg 8-bit, 16-bit, 24-bit; larger is better, to a point) and the sample rate (eg 44.1khz, ie 44,100 samples per second).

Audio on CDs is mastered using 44.1khz sampling at 16 bits in stereo, so that works out at 44,100 x 2 channels x 2 bytes for every second – roughly 172KBytes/sec (approx. 1,411kbps), so a single 3 minute song would take over 30Mb, neatly filling a quarter of your $250 Smart media card in 1998.
[NB: if you are ripping CDs, there is no real point sampling at 24-bit and 96khz – it won’t improve the original sound]

Fortunately, creating an MP3 file compresses the resulting music using a “lossy” format which sacrifices data that isn’t crucial to the aural representation of the sound, though how much it reduces the quality in relation to size of the file depends on the bitrate of the MP3 that’s produced – if your MP3 is only 64kbps, then it will sound quite thin and tinny when compared to a 320kbps file, or the uncompressed music (that’s 10+ times the file size).

Format wars

Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio was created to rival MP3, arguably being more effective at retaining better quality of sound even when using small files / low bitrates, and WMA was supported by quite a few music players, CD players and the like. WMA also featured DRM capabilities so music could be distributed in a controlled fashion: something that was appealing to content owners, but less so to consumers as it complicated their ability to buy and use legitimate media. In fact, if you bought music that was DRM protected WMA, you might find that the rights management is about to expire.

These days, if you’re not bothered about resulting file size, you’re better off using Lossless ripping codecs, like Lossless MP3 or Lossless WMA; then you know that the file you’ve ripped is supposedly indistinguishable from the original, rather than a lossy and therefore inferior copy. You could even rip your media lossless for archival, and run conversion tools to produce a lossy (but still high quality) version that you’d be able to put on your phone, in the car etc. If you have a collection of audio that’s been ripped from CDs to MP3 or WMA over the years, it might be worth revisiting to preserve it for the future in a lossless format.

Lots of people have moved to using FLAC, which is lossless, open and is now widely supported (except, of course, by Apple, who push their own proprietary format) and is a good way of ripping your CDs for archival purposes as well as being supported by most modern playback devices and software – Windows 10 features native FLAC playback without the need for additional software.

Rip me a new one

It’s quite an undertaking to re-rip all of your old audio CDs, but could be a worthwhile exercise to occupy a few hours over the forthcoming holiday season..

One friend decided to do so, and fetched the large cardboard box of CDs from the loft. As it was sitting in the hall, his 9 year-old daughter asked, “Daddy, what are all these DVDs?”. When it was explained they were CDs and they had music on, they realised that she had never known a world where music wasn’t just “there” and that it needed media of some sort.

You’d want to start with a new ripper, not just use the Windows Media Player or iTunes type software – get a dedicated ripper that supports AccurateRip or similar, a technology that reads and re-reads the drive and makes sure it has a true representation of what’s on the original CD. The payoff is a much slower ripping speed, but that’s OK if you’re just ploughing through your collection once, and all for the last time…

Imagine a CD player streaming uncompressed data in real time from the laser reading the surface of the CD, at the rate of 1.4 million bits/second, it’s no surprise that sometimes it won’t get everything clean, so error correction will kick in and smooth over the gaps. Not something you’d probably notice when you’re listening that one time, but if you want to create a perfect copy of your CD, then AccurateRip will make sure it gets close.

Rippers of note include dbPowerAmp (which is paid-for but the ripper can be used for 2 weeks, fully featured, so may be long enough to get your collection done) or Exact Audio Copy, which is free and has been evolving for well over a decade. See a wider comparison here, should you need it. You might want to copy your resulting mahoosive music collection to OneDrive, so you can access it from everywhere.

Tip o’ the Week 349 – Office 365 UI updates

clip_image002At the Ignite conference in Atlanta at the end of September, lots of news came out about Artificial Intelligence, Windows Server, Security and Office 365 – check out the keynotes and other videos, here.

One of the new features that has appeared in some users’ Office 365 environment is a new app launcher UI – it’s the overlay which appears when you click on the 3×3 grid on the top left of Office 365 websites; if you’re an O365 subscriber then you could use portal.office.com as a Launchpad, or just go to outlook.office.com for your mail and spread out from there.

clip_image004Some Office365 features are very dependent on not only which package you’re subscribing to, but whether or not you’ve an IT department which is controlling the deployment – as well as “Standard”, there’s a “First Release” option that gets new stuff more quickly. IT departments or other groups supporting Office 365 users could use the Fast Track site to find collateral that might help them explain newer features to their end users.


To find out what level of Office 365 you’re using, click on your photo or the silhouette icon on the top right, and choose “Your Account” from the list, and then “View Subscriptions” from your My Account home page, where you can tweak all kinds of other settings, install software and the likes.

The new App Launcher has clip_image006the ability to move icons around and resize them akin to the way you can tweak the layout of your Windows Start menu (though not Live Tiles, at least not yet – there are other improvements on the way – see more on the App Launcher and upcoming changes).

clip_image008Other new features for Office 365 include Delve Analytics being rebranded “MyAnalytics” and given a freshen up; see the new MyAnalytics icon in Outlook, if you’re a subscriber (or if you have the Office 365 E5 package, in which it’s included).

Watch the demo video of this awesome technology here, check out more details on MyAnalytics here, or just visit http://office.com/myanalytics. As Paul Thurrot says, though, there may a need for “a bit of introspection some will find uncomfortable”, as the data surfaced might make you wonder just what you do all the time.

Tip o’ the Week 348 – Headspace and Mindfulness

clip_image002Mindfulness” is all the rage right now, or more to the point, it’s all the calm state of mental wellbeing. Airport bookshops are chock full of guides on how to empty your head, ironically just at the time & place when most people are rushing around with high levels of cortisol and many things fighting for their inner attention.

Satya is a great proponent of Carol Dweck’s thinking on Mindset (though it’s fair to say, her book is better than her website), but it’s worth noting that talk of Mindset and mindfulness can sometimes confuse as they are not necessarily related, even if often connected. It’s arguably easier to be conscious of one if you practice the other.

Mindfulness starts for most people with meditation: if you’ve never really tried it, banish thoughts of yogic flying, far out sounds and oming your way through life. Whilst some people doubtless find these things relevant, a simple 10 minute exercise in breathing meditation can help to get your head straight before or even during a busy day,.

Long-time UK Microsofties may recall the personal excellence training that was de rigeur in the tenure of a previous HR director, espoused by Nicholas Bate and his Strategic Edge consulting & training business. Not to be confused with a US business of the same name but a somewhat different charter.

Nick talked about a “personal operating system” ethos, called MEDS – Meditation, Exercise, Diet & Sleep. Here is a media file of the cassette tape he used to give out, to help attendees keep up the meditation bit, together with the warning of “don’t use this tape in the car”…

clip_image004If you’re not a alumnus/alumna of the Personal Excellence course and want to try 10 minutes of meditation to help clear your heid, then you could do worse than check out www.headspace.com – it’s a subscription service of bite-sized meditation guides, aiming to help you better deal with the stuff that competes for mental attention.

There’s a great, free, 10-day introduction (10×10 minutes) online course, and there are iOS and Android apps to aid mobile digestion, though everything’s browser accessible so can be picked up anywhere. Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe gave a great TED talk a while back – start by giving this 10 minutes and see how you get on.

There’s no Windows app for Headspace, but other similar if less slick alternatives do exist, like Harmony. Search meditation in the Store, and you’ll find all sorts of others too.

Tip o’ the Week 347 – Mentions in Outlook

clip_image002One of the nice things about subscribing to client apps as part of Office365 is the regular feature updates which flow, tying together new capabilities in the service at the back end with updates to the client. One such change which came out recently was the addition of “mentions” in Outlook – you may have seen the dialog…


Mentions is a new feature that helps to get someone’s attention, much like mentioning them on Facebook, Twitter or Yammer.

When you type an @ symbol in Outlook, you’ll see an inline pop up showing the a list of frequent and/or recent email recipients. If you start typing then that list gets narrowed and when you select the person’s name, it’s added to the message in full and they’re automatically added to the To line of the mail or meeting request too.

You can edit their name inline (so it might just say @forename) to make the mail easier to read. As a mentionee, you can clip_image006show only mails that have mentioned you as above – in the main Outlook window, look for the filter next to the search box, usually showing “All”, and it can quickly show you only mentions. In Outlook Web client, you’ll also see a little @ to the right of the messages which mention you, in the regular inbox view.

clip_image008If the people you work with are in agreement, this can be a handy way of asking colleagues to do something; if you embed mentions in a long mail, then the people you’re invoking will be able to quickly show the mails they need to respond to – a less structured and formal way than assigning a task or other means.